The revolution will not be televised. It will be streamed live

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This morning, as usual, I opened up reddit and quickly scanned the front page. It might be tempting to think that I was simply looking for a diversion, avoiding my daily obligations or just wasting time like a feckless teenager, but my daily morning surf is actually a much more disciplined activity than it might seem at first sight. In short I was looking to see what had become ‘news’ on the overnight American reddit cycle.

I have been doing this for some time as reddit is quite good at uncovering the trending tech news, although it’s worth noting it is not a primary source, more a navigation aid. Before I open reddit I will have looked through both the BBC news site and the Guardian, so it is rare that a non-tech, or mainstream news story is surfaced on reddit that I haven’t already picked up from traditional news sources.

Today’s front page looked like this. The story about the unrest in Ukraine sitting at the top, immediately caught my eye.

front page of reddit

I quickly had 2 thoughts. Firstly wow, something big must have happened in Kiev to have claimed the top spot on the front page, and secondly, why didn’t I see this story on the BBC and the Guardian already? I had, as is my custom already been to both those news sites.

They looked like this.

BBC news 1

BBC News 2

Guardian 1

Guardian 2

Meanwhile I had clicked on the reddit link, to a live stream, which revealed a somewhat arresting scene. Not massively dramatic, there was no pitched battle being played out, although the images, the live moving images accompanied by live audio, clearly showed what looked like the aftermath of a pitched battle.

This was what that looked like.

Ukraine live stream

I immediately re-opened my trusted news sites to find out what had happened. Even though it was reddit that had succeeded in bringing this news item to my attention my long learnt news gathering habits sent me scrambling back to the old school sites.

Neither site, the BBC or the Guardian, had linked to this story above the fold. On the BBC it was the fifth story and on the Guardian the third, counterpointed by the Anelka / quenelle story. The BBC prioritising a footballers crass behaviour ahead of massive political unrest, the guardian just about letting the unrest pip the crass footballer.

I read both sites’ stories, and was surprised to read bland reports of overnight unrest and the ensuing political posturing of the Ukrainian and Russian politicians. Neither report seemed to comfortably reflect the scenes, the live scenes, I was able to watch unfold in the live stream. It wasn’t that they had failed to capture the drama they simply hadn’t tried to.

So I went back to reddit and opened up the comments.

Information overload.

There were links to maybe 10/15 other video sources showing various events from the night’s demonstrations.

There were links to the local Ukrainian news sources where there was actual live reporting, updating events in real time.

There were links to Google maps showing the exact location within the city.

There were requests for the community to help with various translation challenges, which I found fascinating. The audio on the live stream could pick up what was being broadcast to the protesters, by the police. But not speaking Russian it was a joy to get the translation, although the content was grim and scary.

In short it was lively, dynamic and fascinating, but it was neither authoritative nor unbiased.

Here’s the thing though.

The internet, as a simple result of being what it is, gives me ample resource to establish the authority of reported facts and many tools to establish to my own satisfaction how far a clear bias should jeopardise the veracity of the information being transmitted.

I spent the next 30 minutes of my morning following links, reading Wikipedia articles and other bland information repositories to verify certain parts of the reddit sourced information, even some of the translations. I started to ask myself why there was so little reporting of the Ukrainian unrest. It seemed to be a major story to me, so I was curious what reason had led to its relegation from the top of the news cycle.

However, I was more intrigued as to why the news media had declined to deliver what had been a highly stimulating news experience. What I couldn’t understand was why they had decided to miss out on the opportunity to be the owner of that stimulating news experience.

I’m asking why, when from this industry (the news industry), we continually hear of the impending destruction of quality journalism, how the internet, or Google specifically if you are in France, is responsible for revenue destruction, and how the old business models are no longer fit for purpose. When we have what essentially boils down to a dead product, then why then aren’t they covering the genuine news items that offer the opportunity to use the best of internet functionality to deliver authoritative and unbiased news reporting to the masses? In real time. With real live imagery and audio and all the rest of the bangs and whistles.

It’s a bigger question that it seems at first sight.

One facet that needs exploration is the value of being an authoritative source. It is somewhat inextricably built in to the concept of bias. A source can be considered authoritative, by its audience, because, amongst other things, it is either reputed to deliver the facts alone, a sincere lack of bias, or it can be trusted to deliver a consistent bias that matches an inherent bias in the audience. The give em what they want argument. We might believe that our news choices deliver the first type of authority, but really they all deliver the second

I don’t think that it’s tin foil hat territory to suggest that pretty much all authoritative news sources have some form of inherent bias. Indeed you can see bias just in the difference of reporting priorities between the BBC and the Guardian. Which means that a true sincere lack of a bias is not a valid criteria for success. No-one, it seems can make it stick.

But then, that also means that authority is derived from the audience and its happiness with what it receives from the broadcaster.

What today’s reporting of the unrest in Ukraine shows us is the creative disruption of the news, delivered in a visceral and gripping fashion.

One of the extremely important parts of Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory is that the new innovative disruptive technologies are, initially at least, highly inferior to the incumbent. So the transistors that eventually displaced valve technology got their start as small portable radios that were so weak that they needed to be tightly aligned to the broadcast source to even receive a signal. They were loved because they enabled teenagers to listen to rock n roll without their parents knowing. Prior to transistor radios there was a family radio, a big old thing in the living room. The new radios were deeply technically inferior but cheap and just about good enough.

There are a lot more dynamics at play than just creative destruction here but nonetheless Christensen’s theories are instructive.

Using reddit as a news source for this kind of news is inferior to traditional outlets in many ways. For a start I had to do a lot more of the work myself. There was no aesthetic one stop shop for all the various links I needed, no single authority I could comfortably defer to. Instead I had to push through the thread, read the comments, follow links good and bad, check facts, and establish where bias needed to be accounted for. I can’t come back tomorrow and expect a follow up, there will be no editorial opinion from the world’s leading talking heads.

But, there was little alternative. The mainstream press wasn’t in the game.

The other device that helped establish transistors was the hearing aid. As a technology valves simply couldn’t be accommodated within human ears, they were too big. Those first hearing aids were according to Christensen competing against non-consumption. They didn’t have to be great, no-one else was in the market.

This morning with regards to getting a full and informative news update regarding the civil unrest in the Ukraine there was only one place to go, the open web. The door was reddit but the value was to be found on the web in a lot of different locations. Essentially the open web was competing against non-consumption, there was nowhere else to get a comparative experience. Or, actually to even find out what was going on.

News organisations are aware of all this of course, as all disrupted industries are, but they still do nothing about it. Part of the difficulty is the need to pander to the required bias of audiences and stakeholders but the more difficult problem is the one at the heart of the creative disruption conundrum. The new market is built around the new providers, and eventually they suck the old market in to the new technology, it is rare that the old players catch up. If modern news organisations embrace the variability and the volatility of the open web then what is their role? It can be neither gatekeeper nor authority, as they are today. That’s a problem that hasn’t been solved yet.

A lot of the thinking about the role of the internet in times of civil unrest, revolution and war centers on the ability to get news out that otherwise would be held back by the established sources. This is true enough, and certainly twitter and other democratic platforms do rebalance certain elements of the propaganda battles. However, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Traditional news has wholeheartedly embraced twitter, there can barely be a journalist worth their salt without a twitter feed and similarly there can be no newsroom that doesn’t understand the immediacy of these tools.

Yet still we hear that modern journalism is under serious threat. And I think that that is true, for the reasons I’ve started to explore here. My parent’s generation, and much of my generation, are always going to defer to the old news sources, even while they now read the headlines on their ipads before breakfast.

The millenials? Not so much. They live in the stream, consume TV (if at all) in a completely different way and pretty much don’t read newspapers. What happened on reddit this morning is an extremely scruffy precursor to what news reporting might become, and it is this generation that will learn to improve that experience. The exact details are yet to be derived, the issue of authority in a world of accessible primary sources being a prime unexplored vector, but it will come.

The revolution will not be televised. It will be a live stream. u/time_mashine got that right.

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